Battle Spotlight #12: Operation Barbarossa and the Battle for Moscow

On June 22, 1941, the largest invasion in history. would commence in Eastern Europe. Over 3.9million German troops, 600,000 motor vehicles, and 700,000 horses. At that time, the unbeatable German war machine turned its engines toward Soviet Russia, the unconquerable land. The result would be a turning point in the war, and a major setback for Hitlers conquest of Soviet Russia. This is Operation Barbarossa.

The Build-Up

August 23, 1939. German and Soviet diplomats sign a non-aggression treaty. The “Pact of Blood” would change World War II forever. In many ways, the treaty would make sense, as Stalin and Hitler were similar in many ways. They both ruled by eliminating all possible competition, and becoming ruthless dictators. To ensure that no uprising would break, they both employed secret police: Hitler with the Gestapo and Stalin with the NKVD. A deadly purge in between 1936 and 1937 imposed by Stalin had killed millions of people, and the Western democracies knew about it. Fearing them, Stalin allied himself with the one man that he felt were similar: Adolf Hitler. Therefore the pact was signed, and Germany invaded Poland afterwords, starting the Second World War.

While Germany was out conquering the Low Countries, the Soviet Union took ad
vantage of the situation and attacked the Baltics and Finland. Though the Russians had the superior numbers and equipment they lacked the leadership. The recent purge had also killed anyway of another leader, and that included the military leaders. Most of them were replaced by unable commanders. The Soviets may have matched equally in equipment, but leadership was their greatest downfall. That meant that few commanders were left to lead the Red Army. This clumsy mishap, the Winter War, only convinced Hitler even more that the Soviet Union could be conquered easily. For weeks Hitler organised one of the largest land invasion armies in the world. Nearly 4 million German troops were organised into 180 divisons, with 3350 tanks and 7200 guns supported by 2000 aircraft. They were also reinforced by 14 Romanian divisions, as well as Finnish, Hungarian, and Slovak armies. The invasion force was set.

Stalin himself had received plenty of evidence of a German buildup on his western frontier. Yet despite he still held onto the hopes that  it was just his Western Allies ill interpretation. Train loads of supplies including oil, grain, and metal all came from the Soviet factories and farms, heading towards the German lines, aiding them for the attack. Stalin’s commanders, unable to use reliable intelligence, kept most of their thoughts to themselves, fearing their dictator. Timoshenko, the Defense Commissar, and Zhukov, the chief o staff, arrived to meet Stalin, informing him that their communications have been cut. Even a German deserter brought news that the invasion would begin at 4:00 in the morning, but Stalin dismissed the thought and still wanted to settle it peacefully. The time was ripe for a surprise attack.

Operation Barbarossa

The 180 German divisons, now organized into 3 large Army Groups: North(Leeb), Centre(Bock), and South(Von Rundstedt). Each army group was ordered historic routes. North headed for Leningrad, Centre headed for Moscow, and South headed for Kiev. The route followed by the North would attack along the Baltic coast. The second would run through the cites Minsk and Smolensk, the route that Napoleon followed. Finally the third would run along the Carpathian Mountains, and attack the “breadbasket” of the Soviet Union, the Ukraine. Though the German armies faced notable river obstacles like the Dnieper, the natural landscape of the Soviet Union, allowed the crossing of the rivers to be much easier.

The Soviets, who were obviously unprepared, were driven back, but some did not escape. Since the German army’s strategy was fast and effective, many Soviets were enveloped into large pockets which destroyed entire armies. This would later counter itself, as the Panzer spearheads would be too fast, and the infantry always lagging behind. Another reason was due to the Soviet commander’s fear of execution if they ordered a withdrawal. In conclusion, the Soviets would be trapped, fighting a battle that has never happened before. Unlike the battles fought in France, Hitler felt that the Soviets deserved no military respect and ordered that every German soldier fight with no mercy. Faced with a desperate situation, Stalin decided to improve the Soviet morale by declaring that every soldier have a “Guard” added to their names.

On July 19, Hitler ordered a new Fuhrer Directive No. 33, declaring his plans on the next stage. Army Group Centre’s two Panzer groups led by Hoth and Guderian, were to be diverted from their drive on Moscow to help Leeb and Rundstedt on their progress on Leningrad and Kiev. Many commanders, especially Guderian were outraged, and were tired of Hitler’s daily interference with their conquest. Before the operation, over-optimism was widespread among the German High Command, especially by the Fuhrer. Hitler once said: “All you need to do is kick open the door.” Due to this, Hitler believed that his commanders were incompetent, and resumed total control himself, issuing orders. Unfortunately, he had few military knowledge. Guderian’s divisons were reduced to 50% tank strength, but he had advanced 440 miles in six weeks, and only had 220 miles until he reached Moscow, and there were only a few days before the autumn rains would fall, slowing the advance.

By now Stalin was planning a counter-offensive. On August 16the Bryansk Front, commanded under A.I. Yeremenko was fitted with new Soviet machines, such as the T-34 medium tank and the Katyusha rockets, dubbed Stalin’s organs. His first order was to order his two armies, teh 13th and the 21st to attack the gap between Von Runstedt’s armored spearhead, and Guderians Panzer Army. He was basically sticking his head into a trap. The Panzer groups converged on the armies and surrounded them. On September 26, the encirclement was complete and 665,000 soldiers were trapped. Five armies, and fifty divisons were destroyed, as well as precious equipment.

T-34

Katyusha rockets

‘The Flight to the Front’

After the disastrous Kiev encirclement, winter had begun to show in late September. The rivers swelled and the roads turned into mud, and then came the snowstorms. Guderian rushed his Panzer units back into Army Group Centre to start the final push to take Moscow. In the South the Romanians were laying siege to Odessa, which would fall on October 16. Army Group North’s effort to take Leningrad had started on Ausgust 8, but Leeb had three major problems. The first was that Leningrad was protected from behind by the large Lake Ladoga, stopping an encirclement. The second was that the cities’s population had amassed a lot of defenses, including 370 miles of barbed wire, 620 miles of earthworks, and more. The last factor was that the Finnish hung fire at Lake Ladoga after the Hoth’s tanks had returned to Army Group Center.

Right now Stalin was facing a supreme crisis, his armies had been reduced terribly, and were not able to face the German armies. Stalin relied on Zhukov again to save the Soviet Union. Zhukov rallied 250,000 citizens to dig anti-tank ditches, and brought commanders such as Rokossovsky and Vatutin to the front. The first frosts of winter just started, when on Novemver 16th, the final stage of Opertiaon Typhonn, the plan to take Moscow, as unleashed. It was named ‘the flight to the front’ a last-ditch effort to get inside Moscow’s buildings before the full fury of “General Winter” began. But they faced Zhukov’s line of defence. At first the line did not hold, but it soon became clear that though the Germans were making progress, they began slow. Panzer Group 3 only had 18 miles until they reached Moscow, the Fourth Army was only 25 miles, Guderian was 60 miles away to the south. There was a legend that some of the Germans could see the glowing domes of the Kremlin. If that was true, then that would be the last flicker of energy for the German forces. By now the snows had come, and the Germans were not issued winter clothing, as Hitler and the high command believed that Russia would collapse. The Russians, however, did not and they were issued the standard winter gear, including a pair of felt boots, the best for the Russian winter.

With the Germans freezing on the outskirts of Moscow, the Red Army were planning a counter-attack on Decembber 5th. The newly arrived Siberian force reinforced greatly. Since Japan had decided to focus on the U.S. instead of the Soviets, this allowed Stalin to pull the Siverian force away from Eastern Russia and protect Moscow. If Japan had attacked the Soviet Union, then Moscow would have surely fell. The Russians attacked all along the front, and by Chrismas Day, they had regained all the ground lost on Typhoon.

Not only had the Germans lost men and ground, they had lost the confidence of the Fuhrer. Hitler dismissed commanders in the dozens, Runstedt resigned, Bock was replaced by Von Kluge, Guderian was dismissed as well for trying to retreat from his exposed position, and many more. Hitler relieved Brauchitsh as commander in chief of the army, and believing that he was the only one capable of saving the Third Reich, he announced they he would take control. The terrible retreat of Napeleon irked Hitler not to retreat, but by mid-January of 1942 the worst was over, and Hitler began planning how to destroy Stalin’s Soviet Union in the spring for good.

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